After Tiller

PBS Premiere: Sept. 1, 2014Check the broadcast schedule »

Film Description

After Tiller is a portrait of the four doctors in the United States still openly performing third-trimester abortions in the wake of the 2009 assassination of Dr. George Tiller in Wichita, Kansas — and in the face of intense protest from abortion opponents. It is also an examination of the reasons women seek late abortions. The film presents the complexities of these women's difficult decisions and the compassion and ethical dilemmas of the doctors and staff who fear for their own lives as they treat their patients.

George Tiller was a father of four and one of the only doctors in the country who performed third-trimester abortions. On May 31, 2009, he was gunned down in the vestibule of his church, becoming the eighth American abortion clinic worker to be assassinated since Roe v. Wade was decided. After Tiller moves between the stories of the four remaining doctors, all close friends and colleagues of Tiller, who are fighting to keep this service available.

At the center of the story is Dr. LeRoy Carhart, an Air Force veteran who decided to start providing third-trimester abortions at his clinic in rural Bellevue, Neb., after Dr. Tiller's death. Subsequently, the Nebraska state legislature passed a new law that prohibits all abortions more than 20 weeks into a pregnancy, forcing Dr. Carhart to look for clinic space outside of the state. After protesters in Iowa blocked his efforts to open a new practice there, he found a clinic where he could work in Germantown, Md., and anti-abortion activists immediately mobilized.

Seventy-four-year-old Dr. Warren Hern, a longtime late abortion provider in Boulder, Colo., struggles to reconcile a family life he wants to embrace fully with a demanding career that endangers his life and the lives of those around him. After threats and harassment from protesters led to the unraveling of his first marriage, Dr. Hern eventually married Odalys, a former abortion provider from Cuba, and adopted her 9-year-old son. Now that he finally has the family he always wanted, he is discovering the severe toll his work takes on his personal life and must find out whether it's even possible for these two things to co-exist peacefully.

Dr. Susan Robinson and Dr. Shelley Sella are two female abortion providers who worked with Dr. Tiller in Kansas and were left without jobs when his clinic closed following his death. After finding a new place to work in Albuquerque, N.M., Dr. Robinson and Dr. Sella soon realized that they had moved to a very different legal landscape. In Kansas, an outside physician had to approve every decision to give a woman a third-trimester abortion, while in New Mexico, the final decision is entirely left up to the doctor. As a result, these two practitioners are now facing complicated new moral terrain, and Dr. Robinson in particular grapples with this situation. As the primary decider of which patients truly need late abortions while she is on duty at the clinic, she must learn how to evaluate patients' stories and make her decisions accordingly. At the same time, Dr. Sella, a former midwife, struggles with the nature of the work itself and with developing a moral calculus that takes both the situation of the patient and the potential life of the fetus into account.

After Tiller follows these four doctors as they confront a host of obstacles — from moral and personal dilemmas to restrictions placed on their practices by state legislation. Rather than trying to take a comprehensive look at the heated political debate surrounding abortion, the film weaves together revealing, in-depth interviews with the physicians and intimate vérité scenes both from their lives outside their clinics and the time they spend in their clinics, counseling and caring for their anxious, vulnerable patients at profoundly important crossroads in their lives. For all these doctors, the memory of Dr. Tiller remains a constant presence, serving both as an inspiration to persevere and a warning of the risks they take by doing so.

"Reality is complicated," say filmmakers Martha Shane and Lana Wilson, "yet when it comes to the abortion issue in America, we are often presented with two very different, black-and-white versions of what is right and what is wrong — no exceptions granted. As a result, the national shouting match over abortion has become increasingly distanced from the real-life situations and decisions faced by those people most intimately involved — the physicians and their patients.

"It was for this reason — and with a desire to shed more light, rather than more heat, on this issue — that we decided to go inside the lives of the last four doctors performing third-trimester abortions in America with After Tiller. We discovered that they recognized the moral and ethical complexity of doing this work better than anyone. In fact, they struggle with the issues at the heart of this debate every day.

"The patients who came to these doctors were women from a huge variety of socio-economic and religious backgrounds, and they were racked with guilt, sadness, anger and even ambivalence. The reason so many patients agreed to participate in the film is because they never thought they would end up in such a desperate situation and they saw that only if they shared their stories could anyone possibly understand it.

"We hope that no matter where audiences stand on this issue, After Tiller will lead them to look at it in a very different way."